Monday 25 March 2024

Art, 1980-1990, at Tate Britain

Art, 1980-1900, There is no Such Thing as Society, at Tate Britain.

Against a backdrop of economic and social transformation, artists in the 1980s explored their experience of the land and the body to reflect on their own identities and sense of belonging.

Thatcher's premiership spanned and defined much of Britain in that decade. Her government cut public spending, privatised nationalised industries and challenged the power of unions. In 1984, the National Union of Mineworkers held a year-long strike. Meanwhile, after the 'Big Bang' of financial deregulation, the wealth of the City of London's financial sector increased. The Northern Ireland conflict, known as the Troubles, continued. Young black people across England clashed with law enforcement against racial discrimination and police brutality. In 1986, as the AIDS epidemic ripped through gay communities, the British government prohibited local authorities from promoting gay rights.

Many of the artists in this section made work reflecting on life in Britain. Artists reframed their familiar ideas to express a combination of hope and frustration. Britain was viewed from the North of England, suburban gardens, the streets of Brixton in South London and the Maze Prison in Northern Ireland. Other artists focused on the body to explore the boundaries between private and public social space. Some reflected on the experience of illness and death. Others made work about gender identity, sexuality or racial violence, using their personal experiences of being Othered or excluded.

Anthony Gormley, Three Ways: Mould, Hole and Passage, 1981-82, (lead and plaster)

Gormley made these sculptures using moulds of his own body. They have holes at the mouth, anus and penis respectively. The holes break the surface of the lead and give access to the dark interior, suggesting possible interactions between outside world and inner space. A direct impression of the artist's body is held within a plaster shell which he has insulated with lead, evoking metaphors of alchemy and transformation. These works sparked Gormley's ongoing treatment of the body as a place: the location of human existence.

Tony Cragg, Britain Seen from the North, 1981, (plastic, wood, rubber, paper and other materials)

Cragg used scrap metal and discarded objects to create these shapes.  The work surveys a Britain broken physically and metaphorically. The figure is a stencil of Cragg's own body.At the time, Cragg was particularly outraged by the lavish wedding of Prince Charles to Lady Diana Spencer. This took place during a cost of living crisis that disproportionately affected northern areas of Britain. Cragg wanted to protest 'the superficial, hysterical enthusiasm generated by such an irrelevant event'.

looking closer

Sonia Boyce, From Tarzan to Rambo: English Born 'Native' Considers her Relationship to the Constructed/Self Image and her Roots in Reconstruction, 1987, (photographs, black and white, on paper, photocopies on paper, acrylic paint, ballpoint pen, crayon and felt-tip pen)

Sonia Boyce places photographic self-portraits alongside images of derogatory black characters from the children's books and comics she grew up with. She is interested in exploring how identities are constructed and influenced by popular culture. References to Tarzan and Rambo - both white characters known for their strength - draw attention to the power held by mass media to perpetuate these stereotypes.

Derek Jarman, The Clause, 1988, (acrylic paint, glass, plastic, brass bullet casings, resin, steel nails and string on canvas)

A classical Greek torso is tormented by two plastic superheroes. These toys symbolise Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet. Jarman held them responsible for homophobic public policies, including a slow response to the AIDS epidemic. The title refers to Clause 28, enacted in May 1988. This stated that local authorities 'shall not intentionally promote homosexuality', for instance throuth teaching. Jarman campaigned for gay rights. He was one of the first British public figures to speak openly about his HIV diagnosis.

Mona Hatoum, Performance Still, 1985, (photograph, gelatin silver print on paper, mounted on aluminium)

Performance Still documents a work Mona Hatoum performed in 1985 in Brixton, London. She walked barefoot through the streets, dragging Doc Marten boots tied to her ankles. At the time, the boots were recognisable as the go-to footwear of police officers and fascist National Front members. Born to Palestinian exiles in Lebanon, Hatoum was stranded in London in 1975 when the Lebanese Civil War broke out, and felt solidarity with Brixton's black community. For Hatoum, the work was personal, but also had an immediate relevance to the people it was addressing.

Rita Donagh, Long Meadow, 1982, (oil on canvas)

From the 1980s the sectarian conflict occuring in Northern Ireland (known as The Troubles) became a major theme in Donagh's work. The Maze prison in County Antrim was formerly known as Long Kesh or Long Meadow. Prisoners were housed there in H-Blocks, named for their H-shaped plan. These were the site of escalating political protests. In 1981, the year before Donagh painted the work, ten prisoners, including prominent IRA member Bobby Sands starved themselves to death during a mass hunger strike in the prison.

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